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1.800. 973. 1177

CAREER COUNSELOR’S CORNER

The View from the Hill: Working as a Congressional Staffer [Steve Seidenberg] Virtually unknown outside Washington, Capitol Hill legislative aides and staffers often put in long hours for low pay. So why do many aspiring law students (and even JDs) flock to these positions?

They’re at the White House Rose Garden

“I’ve [already] had the opportunity to write

when the president ceremonially signs a

two bills,” says one new staffer. She came up

bill into law. They’re at congressional press

with the ideas for both, worked with legisla-

Being a junior staff member in the Senate,

conferences and Senate committee hearings

tive counsel to translate them into legalese,

says Dawn, was like being part of a family.

on judicial nominees. But they’re not the

and watched as the bills garnered nation-

“There’s a hair salon in the Capitol Build-

ones being photographed or interviewed; if a

wide press coverage from mammoth media

ing, a dry cleaners, a cafeteria. You know

news camera pans over them, it’s usually by

organizations like ABC, CNN, and The New

everyone there. And you’re all in it together-

accident.

York Times. She says, “I’ve had the chance to

you all work together and go out together.

see an idea turn into actual legislation that

Everyone’s in their 20s and 30s; only the

Staff assistants, legislative assistants,

may go somewhere.” Associates at law firms

highest-level people are married. Because

legislative counsel, and chiefs of staff-the

rarely get to work on such high-profile issues

your work is your first thing-that’s what

staffers who work on Capitol Hill-play a key

from day one.

you’re there to do.” After working on the Hill

haunt you.

for a year and a half, Dawn left to go into the

role in creating the law, putting together press conferences, and orchestrating com-

It’s not just a matter of abstract policy,

private sector. But she didn’t stay away long:

mittee hearings. But they rarely get to be in

either: Staffers get to see how their work

“Last winter,” she says, “I took an $11,000

the spotlight.

helps real-life citizens. “Working with con-

pay cut to go back.”

stituents is the best part of the job,” says one Congressional staffers aren’t drawn to these

legislative aide. “It makes your job a reality.

Dawn worked for a Senate committee as

positions for the money, either. In 1999, leg-

It lets you know why you’re doing what you’re

an assistant to a major staff director. She

islative assistants in the House received, on

doing.”

answered phones, handled constituent mail,

average, between $33,000 and $44,000, while

and helped with hearings. “I was a glori-

legislative assistants in the Senate received

But if you think it’s a dead-end career or

fied receptionist,” she admits. But the job

$48,276. Legislative counsel in the Senate

solely for idealists, think again: Senate

was interesting and intense. For one thing,

received an average salary of $60,610, while

minority leader Trent Lott, Senator Mitch

she had to handle lobbyists. “They wanted

their counterparts in the House received a

McConnell, Congressman Barney Frank,

to get into hearings and markups [sessions

bit less. Those who stayed on the Hill and

and U.S. Supreme Court justice Clarence

in which committee members edit pending

worked their way up the hierarchy could

Thomas, among others, all paid their dues

bills],” Dawn explains. “I had to make sure

become legislative directors, pulling down an

as Capitol Hill staffers before landing their

the right people got in. The game is to know

average of $61,075 in the House and $91,438

current positions.

who’s who and to keep the peace. You have to find out who’s important and who’s going to

in the Senate-but only after about a decade of service.

The Staff Assistant Like almost everyone contacted for this

squawk [if they don’t get in].”

Compare these figures to the average first-

story, Dawn doesn’t want her real name to

She also ran interference between the

year associate’s salary at any major law

appear in print. In part, it’s because most

committee’s press secretary and the media,

firm, and you just have to ask: Why do these

staffers and ex-staffers are not supposed to

made sure reporters and lobbyists got copies

people work long hours, often in cramped

talk to reporters; senators and representa-

of committee testimony, and provided sensi-

offices, for relatively low wages?

tives are the only ones on the Hill authorized

tive information to senators and staff while

to garner media attention. According to some

keeping it away from prying eyes. It was a

It’s all about making a difference-and for

aides, even innocuous-sounding statements

high-profile job that involved a great deal of

some, the promise of future rewards.

might embarrass the boss or come back to

face time with important people on the Hill.

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1.800. 973. 1177

CAREER COUNSELOR’S CORNER

When the Senate committee was in session,

regularly with constituents, lobbying groups,

drafts the actual wording of legislation, which

handling major legislation, Dawn and the

and advocacy organizations. “For the most

also involves, he says, “writing ‘Dear col-

other committee staffers routinely worked 18-

part, it is the staff’s job to be the office experts

league’ letters to members-explaining why

hour days. But, she notes, “there is that beau-

on whatever issue the boss is dealing with. I

this bill is wonderful-and circulating these

tiful thing called recess: One week a month,

obviously can’t know everything about these

letters along with the draft bill.”

when Congress is not in session, you pretty

issues, but I need to know who I should speak

much just come into the office and do nothing.

with to find out,” she says.

the NCAA game, go to lunch, maybe have a

Ever wonder how members of Congress find time to write speeches, op-ed pieces, and

During March recess, I would come in, watch

newspaper columns? Well, they often get

drink or two, then come back only because I

The Legislative Counsel “People who come from law firms go into

had to answer the phone. It was the same for

culture shock,” says George (real name with-

early drafts for op-ed pieces, assist in prepar-

the lawyers-only they got to leave because

held). They have nice offices, great support

ing speeches, or put together talking points.

they had cell phones. The staff director would

staff-and then they come to the Hill. “I work

“Some members want you to write everything

be gone, playing golf.” And in August, Dawn

in an office with no windows,” says George. “I

out, including the procedural things they have

says, “you get just about the entire month off.”

answer my own phone and do my own copying.

to say,” George explains. “I’ve seen people

I don’t mind it, but it takes time away from do-

who didn’t know what was in their own bill and

ing more valuable work.”

how it changed the prior law. If those people

She thinks it all balances out: “In Congress,

help-from people like George. He may do

get off their talking points, they’re totally

you work hard and you play hard.” And the

lost!”

experience was a great stepping-stone: Dawn

As Democratic counsel for a House commit-

is currently pursuing her JD at a prestigious

tee, George has plenty of valuable work to

East Coast law school.

do. Aside from reporting to the member who

George, like all committee counsel, is respon-

hired him, George says, “I’m responsible to

sible for bills affecting an assigned part of the

The Legislative Assistant Julia (actual name withheld) first arrived on

the committee’s chair and its ranking minority

law. (At one point in his career, he handled

member, the subcommittee’s chair and its

bankruptcy legislation and other bills affecting

the Hill during college as part of an intern-

ranking minority member, Democratic party

commercial law.) To keep up with develop-

ship program. She loved it so much that she

leaders in the House, and people in the White

ments in his field, George meets regularly

returned as soon as she graduated. After

House-although I don’t do that last part as

with advocacy groups, academics, and judges.

three years, she’s worked her way up to being

much as I used to. The leadership will call up

a legislative assistant on a congressman’s

and say, ‘What’s the committee position on

He also practices some fancy procedural

personal staff.

this?’ or ‘What’s happening with that bill?’ And

footwork, often having to answer the question

if a bill contains something that a member

“Is there a creative way for a member to do

“I write memos on controversial bills-cover-

may be concerned about, it’s my job to tell him

what he wants to do when the [parliamentary]

ing the pros, the cons, who supports the bill,

about it.”

rules say he can’t do it?” He says, “Now that I’m in the minority, I’ve become a rules nerd.

and who’s against it; and I make a recommendation on how to vote,” she says. “I attend

George’s job is writing-intensive. He prepares

I’m best friends with the folks in the parlia-

markup sessions with my boss, and if there

background memos for his congressman and

mentarian’s office.”

are important issues, I put together briefing

for other members on the committee. Each

books that contain talking points or state-

memo discusses the problem a bill is intended

George admits, “There really is a major differ-

ments for [him] to make during the mark-

to solve, the bill that’s presented, what effects

ence between being in the majority and being

ups. If [the congressman’s] going to offer an

the bill will have, and who’s for and against

in the minority. Members of the majority party

amendment, I draft it and compile supporting

the bill. “It’s done the same way that an as-

don’t have to worry much about parliamentary

information.”

sociate would write a memo or do background

rules; they can pretty much do what they want.

research for a brief [at a law firm],” says

They have control of the committee, control

Julia’s responsible for staying on top of

George. “The idea is to provide members with

of the agenda. There are very few opportuni-

certain policy areas. “I didn’t come to the Hill

the information to know what’s going on.” But

ties for the minority to frame the issues. The

with the intention of working on transporta-

some members of Congress are information

majority also has more money and staff. They

tion issues,” she says, “but I enjoy it.” When

junkies. “I’ve had members come up to me

get better offices. Sometimes salaries are

it comes to the issues within her purview, she

who want to go section by section through a

better in the majority. And of course, you get

is the liaison with the outside world, meeting

420-page bill,” he says. Sometimes, George

your way.”

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CAREER COUNSELOR’S CORNER

Perhaps the most common career path is for Overall, George says, his job “can be very

staffers to work on the Hill for a few years

stressful [but] very rewarding. You’re in the

before and/or after law school and then cash

middle of things that really matter. But it can

in on their experience by joining a trade as-

be frustrating if the national political winds

sociation, a lobbying group, or a law firm that

blow against you.”

has clients with legislative interests. “Those organizations are always looking for people

The Chief of Staff There’s no such thing as an average workday for Kevin Ryan-at least, not since he became the chief of staff for New York congressman Anthony Weiner. “I do policy work for the science committee,” Ryan says, “meet with political action committees and policy committees, handle local issues, keep an eye on

with Hill experience,” says Ryan. “Nonprofits

[the congressman’s] schedule, take meetings

home districts and run for public office, or use

when he can’t be there, and do a fair amount

their political connections to become judges.

of staff management. A lot of the skills I

Asked about his own career plans, Ryan says,

learned in law school come into play [in my

“That’s a good question. I have no immediate

current job]. For instance, I write memos

plans to leave. But after the next election...”

about issues and bills-but not in legalese.”

He admits that he is considering several op-

It took Ryan several years to work his way

ing on Capitol Hill.

pay a lot less, so ex-staffers may work for companies for a while in order to pay off their student loans. But people generally stay in the same industries. You get expertise in that field and work in it for the rest of your career.” Some staffers, Ryan notes, move back to their

tions-which is one of the advantages of workup the Hill hierarchy to become a chief of staff. He first moved to Washington to work

Steve Seidenberg is a freelance writer and attor-

on Michael Dukakis’s presidential cam-

ney who specializes in covering legal matters.

paign. Then he landed a job as a Capitol Hill staffer, “opening [then-senator Daniel Patrick] Moynihan’s mail” for $16,000 a year, and slowly moved up the ranks. Four years later, Ryan went back to school and earned a JD/MPA (master of public administration) from Syracuse University. After graduation, he managed Weiner’s political campaign for a House seat-and when Weiner won, Ryan got the nod to be chief of staff. While Ryan followed the JD road to the top, other people just stay on the Hill, moving up into higher-paying and more responsible positions. Working on the Hill opens many doors, and people often use the experience as a springboard to other government and privatesector jobs. “For instance,” says Ryan, “if you have expertise on the Judiciary Committee, then you can go over to the Department of Justice.”

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The View from the Hill: Working as a Congressional  

Virtually unknown outside Washington, Capitol Hill legislative aides and staffers often put in long hours for low pay. So why do many aspiri...

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